The crowding and haste of other days no longer stirred the great wharf at New Orleans, and steamboats did not now as then struggle for place or preferment, but lay apart, a melancholy picture of the changing fortunes of carriers and the fluctuations of our country’s commerce. On the wide expanse, once piled high with goods, only scattered packages lay, and these hid away under grimy coverings, like corpses awaiting burial. About the boat I sought, the tumult of the shipping ebbed and flowed, and to one side the great city lay as if deserted, or asleep under the hot afternoon sun. Close by, and near the river’s edge, a procession of convicts came on, winding in and out amid sacks of coffee and bales of cotton, sad and noiseless, as specters might have marched. On either side armed men, alert and watchful, kept pace, a part of the melancholy show. Stripes encompassed the bodies of the convicts, as serpents might loosely coil themselves; but about the guards the stripes ran up and down—to the looker-on there was no other difference. Back of this procession of doomed men and as if threatening it, a herd of mules, half wild and frantic with fear, dashed here and there seeking a way out. About them, and in guardianship, a burly negro, black as night, rode hither and thither, headlong, wheeling and circling, like a Numidian of old, stopping the rush here and cutting it off there—not hurriedly, but at the last moment, as if craving excitement and the admiration his horsemanship elicited. When it seemed to those who looked as if he had lost control over the half-crazed brutes, his fierce cry and the crack of his great whip stayed the frightened animals, and, wheeling, the headlong race began afresh. On board the vessel, room and clean beds awaited these creatures; but for the marching convicts, fortunate he who found a bale or box upon which to lay his sorrowing head. Afterward, amid the swamps of Louisiana, the animals will live, sleek and fat; but the men of sin, less fortunate, will find graves in the shadows of the moss-grown oaks, or, returning, a place in some noisy alms-house, there to eke out their lives with shrunken frames and despairing hearts! This, however, in passing, and not in any way to judge the acts of men, but that I may pick up the beginning of my story, which in no wise concerns itself with such serious things, but is a tale of love and life in the new country, and nothing more.
From the quarter-deck passengers watched the busy scene, and among them one face gentler and fairer than the others. I, glancing up, thought it the most beautiful I had ever beheld, but looking, saw it only for a moment, and this as the convicts marching past were swallowed in the body of the great vessel. An angel grieving over the lost and despairing in life could not, I thought, have looked down on the world with more compassionate pity.
Of delay in loading there was none, or if some lull occurred, the negroes, losing all care, threw down their burdens, and flinging themselves on their knees, fell to playing “craps” as children play at marbles; this vehemently and with noisy contention, snapping their fingers as the dice flew from their trembling hands, each as he threw crying some inarticulate word of menace or entreaty to the goddess of good luck. Finally, when it was an hour past the time of leaving, and the wharf was deserted save by groups of waiting negroes, the bell rang its note of warning, and I, hastening on board, glanced upward, and doing so, saw again the face of the beautiful lady, but now less sorrowing than at first.
Backing into the stream amidst the ringing of bells and the splash of the great wheel, we passed the white city with ever-increasing speed as the sun, far to the west, tipped the buildings and shipping with a golden hue. Later, and as the night closed in cool and starlit, those who watched could yet see some glimpse of the city’s lights far down on the edge of the horizon; but with this passing, no place save the trio of hill-clad cities on the western shore of the Great River met our view until we reached the landing-place at Memphis.
At the time of which I write spring floods filled the deep basin of the Mississippi to overflowing, so that the mighty stream, ever dark and sinister in its lower stretches, was never more cruel or repellent. Its built-up banks, tipped with foam and fast crumbling from the overflow, offered at many points such slight resistance to the conflicting currents as they swept back and forth in the windings of the river that a breath only seemed needed to sweep them away. As if to add some stress of tragedy to the scene, armed men patrolled the western shore, warning us away with angry cries when we sought to land, lest the wash of the boat should overcome the weakened dikes, and so engulf the villages and wide plantations that lay behind.
At many points the waste of water spread unchecked as far as the eye could penetrate the tangled forest, and at other places, eating into the yielding banks, turbulent bays were formed, in which vast whirlpools circled. Into these, trees toppled and fell as the banks gave way, to be sucked down into the murky water, so that we could get no glimpse of them afterward as we watched from the boat’s side. In all this, how strange a contrast! For in the far north golden sands form the bed and rocky shores the borders of the mighty stream. From whatever point one surveys the great river, however, whether north or south or midway in its course, its aspect invites reflection and romantic thoughts, for throughout its length it is ever babbling and full of mystery and change, having a story to tell, had it the time; but evasive, as if in play, it hurries on with ripple of expectancy, beneath the shadows of overhanging trees and amid projecting roots and grasses, glowing with reflected light, to its final ending in the great gulf.
How like, one sees, is it to the lives of men and their affairs. Springing up in obscurity amid limpid springs in tranquil depths, far off, feeble and uncertain of course, it gains strength, like childhood, pushing on through opening vistas and enlivening prospects to its full estate. Thence, faster and faster, to where the waters grow dark and yellow and uncertain of temper, but still onward to the end, where, amid somber shadows and pendent reeds, in the ooze of the slimy earth, its waters are lost in the wide expanse, as men are swallowed up in eternity. Of its tragedies of men and women that have come and gone leaving no trace, who shall tell! Of that race, too, which on its silent shores in ages long gone by came into life, was nurtured, lived, grew old, and was lost, as if it had not been, we know nothing, nor ever will. Nor of that later people, whose warriors for uncounted centuries disturbed the solitude with their fierce cries or quenched their death-rattle in the depths of its silent waters. Here, amidst bordering forests and far-reaching plains, they passed their savage life as Nature formed them, chanting amid circling bays and quiet dells their plaintive love-songs, or listening to the requiem of the rustling leaves and murmuring waters when death at last confronted them. They, too, have gone, following as in a procession of stricken men, leaving no trace as we come on, doomed as they were. For as others have gone, we shall go, and in the end as in the beginning, the valleys of the great river will echo no sound save the ripple of its waters and the moan of the wind in the trees as in primeval days.
Along our course the great river plowed its unobstructed way through rich alluvial lands, bordered with forests and far-reaching plantations. On the edges of these last, hamlets clustered, and about them children played, while men and women watched the angry waters with bated breath. At spots far apart, landing-places were marked by lonesome cabins, and here, in the water-soaked bank, our boat poked its nose, and was held as in a vise by the soft receptive clay. At other places, warned away, we anchored at a distance, transferring our load to smaller crafts, or passed on to await a more favorable hour. Of danger there was none, or if at night the timid held their breath when the sharp sound of the bell caused the great wheel to stop as if stricken with death, they breathed more freely when the obstruction, crashing against the bottom of the boat, passed on and we were safe. Or if at times the tumbling waters and swift converging currents threatened us, the watchful pilots steered us clear, and we saw the danger from afar, and so paid little heed. Thus waiting, some read or slept or played, while others watched the sea-gulls as they flew back and forth across the foam of the flying wheel, searching for particles of food as sharks are said to do at sea.
Not meeting with accident of any kind, the more companionable among the passengers soon set themselves to form the acquaintance of those about them, and in this way, and happily, I was brought in contact with Gilbert Holmes. More fortunate still, I thought, he proved to be the companion of the beautiful lady I had seen looking down in pity on the marching convicts as I came on board. Strangely enough—but not strangely either, for such things are often noticed—he resembled her as men may resemble women. Not much alike, but as they will, without knowing it, take on some part of the features or gentle sweetness of these dear companions of their lives. Mr. Holmes was reaching on to old age, but youthful in face and erect of form and buoyant as if still in the vigor of manhood. Running through his slow speech and mirrored in the mild complaisance of his eyes there were ever present the melodies of the past, the remembrance of what had been. This as we often see in men of affairs who have mixed much in the world’s strife, but are no longer concerned in its turmoil or ambitious ends. In his look and speech there was, however, still a pleasant note of interest, as if life had not tired him, nor his concern in its affairs been dulled by usage or infirmity of temper; but while he listened to what was said or took note of what went on about him, it was plain to every one that he lived only in the presence and reflection of his loving wife. She, on her part, it was also clear, had little thought of anything but her husband, her eyes following him with tender concern, as if in him all her life’s interests were centered.
The great affection these two bore each other was soon discerned by every one, and at once elicited that kind and inquisitive interest which men and women are said ever to feel for those who truly love. Of her age I could form no idea, for life had left no trace of care on her beautiful face, and her eyes still showed in their placid depths the luster of youth and the tranquil calm of a loving and trustful heart. Her mouth, soft in outline and of engaging sweetness, ever led me to speculate anew as to which is the more attractive, the eyes or the mouth of women; but this, I know, others have puzzled over before me, and will to the end of time. Her soft speech and gentle manners quickly made every one her slave, the officers of the boat not less than others; and though harassed by the cares and perplexities of the journey, they lost no excuse or opportunity to come within the radiance of her gentle presence. This tribute of admiration that men ever pay, and with delight, to queenly women, one and all yielded, and gladly, to this sweet-faced lady.
Thus the days passed, and they were to me a new experience of life and its possibilities. A vision of love, burning on undimmed through years of health and sweet contentment to the very end. Happy association! Tranquil picture of life! It fades not from me now, but grows with each recurring day, so that I conjure it up anew and with greater interest than before when, in the turmoil of affairs, my mind finds need of rest or some sweet solace of comfort. Neodankong
Mr. and Mrs. Holmes received me kindly from the very first, and this, it appeared, because of a resemblance they saw in me to a son lost to them long before at Lookout Mountain in the great Civil War. This resemblance and a certain reverent homage I paid them, which I did not seek to hide, caused them to take me trustfully and wholly within the influence of their lives; and this to my great happiness and good fortune then and now.
Mr. Holmes, or Gilbert, as she called him when not using some term of endearment, which she generally did, had passed his life in the West, as the country about the Mississippi Valley was called in his youth. He was fond of telling of the settlement of this new country and the people who had been connected with its early history, and in this was led on by his sweet wife. Into these accounts were interwoven glimpses of his own life, so that I was led to ask him more about himself, and particularly his early adventures, which his wife was most fond of having him recall. This I did at first, I will confess, not so much out of any great interest as that I might find excuse for being the more in his presence and that of his dear lady. After a day thus passed, I wrote out at night what he had recounted. Not at the beginning with any purpose, but because I ever had a peculiar knack in this direction, being designed, I think, from the first to be a clerk or something of that kind, and nothing more. However, lest I should transgress some law of good manners, I after a while informed Mr. Holmes of what I was doing. This, I saw, did not meet his entire approval, though he gave no expression to his thoughts save a look of surprise; but Mrs. Holmes, upon hearing it, was greatly pleased, and thereafter lost no opportunity to aid me in my efforts to draw from him the particulars of his early life. In this, however, we were never wholly successful, because of his reluctance to speak of himself; but as she seemed to know every incident of his career and to treasure it as a sweet memory, when he halted or sought to break the story, she would put her hand on his, and taking up the narrative go on, perhaps, until we parted for the night. These interruptions were greatly to his liking, it was clear, for he loved above all things to listen to her voice; and I continually detected him at such times looking at her with eyes half of remonstrance at what she told, but altogether full of affection for her and her engaging ways. By this the reader will see—and I am glad to make it plain to him—that while the life of Gilbert Holmes seems to be related by himself, it was in many parts—and the most interesting parts, I think—told by his wife as she sat by his side with her hand clasping his. Cherished memory! Sweet tale of love and adventure sweetly told! Surely I shall never know anything so beautiful again.
Our journey too quickly over, cut short the account of Mr. Holmes’s life, and this to my sorrow, and so I said.
“You have heard but a part, and that not the most entertaining, you would think, could you hear all,” Mrs. Holmes answered; “for among other things he has been a soldier in two of his country’s wars, and in the last a general,” she added, with a fond look at her husband.
“I am sure his life must have been full to the brim,” I answered.
“Yes, and well you may be; but it is his early life that interests me most, and the part he loves best to recall. Nor of this have you heard the half—the dear, soft-hearted, modest man!” she answered, taking his face in both her hands and kissing him as women will those they greatly love.
Afterward, when I had written out the story and came to ask Mr. Holmes’s permission to put it in print, I should by no means have succeeded except for the intercession of his sweet wife, who rightly believed the world could never know too much of so good and honest a gentleman.
“Surely, Gilbert, there is nothing in it you would not have told, and it will please me more than I can tell if you will let him have his way in this,” the dear lady remonstrated; and he, saying nothing, assented, as he did to everything she proposed.
I have had much inclination to prolong the story, but this I have restrained, lest it prove tiresome; though how that could be I cannot see. In the telling I shall follow on with the reader, but more slowly, it being to me worthy of greater regard than he can give it; and this because in every word I shall detect a presence or hear again voices that will be dear to me forever. This pleasure the reader cannot share, nor see as I shall the loving couple, first one and then the other, take up the story on this page and on that as, in the telling, some halt or embarrassment of speech clogs the other’s utterance.